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Culture: History of Iraq: 1970 - 1979
Friday, 20 October 2006 Written by Garrett Johnson
Henry Kissinger
(Click for larger image)
"Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

-- Henry Kissinger, commenting on the US sellout of the Kurds in Iraq in 1975

"Even in the context of covert actions, ours was a cynical enterprise."

-- Pike Report, 1976

The Fine Art of Betraying Kurds

The Kurds struggle for independence has been used by foreign countries seeking to undermine local governments in the Iraq region for nearly a hundred years. It was first used by the Turks against the British occupation in 1922. It was used by several countries against the Iraqi government in the First Kurdish-Iraq War (1961-1970).

But the cynical, Machiavellian use of the Kurdish desire for independence was never so fully manipulated as how Kissinger did it in 1974.

This is Part Eight of my huge ongoing series about the History of Iraq. If you haven't already seen them you can find parts Seven, Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, and One at the links listed.

When I left off Part Seven the Baathists had just gained complete and unchallenged power of Iraq for the first time. They then ended a brutal 9-year, stalemate of a war with the Kurds by granting them in a truce limited autonomy, with certain conditions that would be implemented in 1974. It was time for the Baathists to move forward with their grand plans for Iraq.

Besides the agreement with the Kurds in 1970, there was also an attempted coup which failed. The Shah of Iran, America's Puppet, was implicated in it. The same year the Baath Party of Syria is taken over by Hafez al-Assad. This causes a permanent split in the two Baath parties.

Given these two events, what happened next kind of makes sense. 1972 was a busy year for the Baath party - and nothing that happened made the Nixon White House happy.

Commies, Oil, and the Cold War

On April 9, 1972, Iraq and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship.

Article 1 stated that the treaty's objective was to develop broad cooperation between Iraq and the Soviet Union in economic, trade, scientific, technical, and other fields on the basis of "respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in one another's internal affairs." Under the treaty, Iraq obtained extensive technical assistance and military equipment from the Soviet Union.
As if that wasn't enough for Cold War America, the Iraqi government met with the remnants of the ICP (Iraqi Communist Party), the parts that weren't liquidated by the Baath coup in 1963, to hammer out differences in their ideas of socialism, democracy, and economic development.

But the final straw was oil.

America had been plotting and disrupting the Iraqi government ever since Abdul Karim Qassim had partially nationalized the Iraqi oil industry in 1961 and helped start OPEC in 1960. In May 1972 the Baath government demanded more oil production from the IPC (Iraq Petroleum Company). The IPC offered to increase production by 50% almost immediately, and to triple it in five years. This only proved that the IPC, which was owned by American oil companies, had been supressing oil production for decades. On June 1, 1972, President Bakr of Iraq announced the nationalization of IPC's oil concession and installations. This nationalization only applied to the massive Kirkuk oil fields, not to the oil fields in the south which were owned by BPC and MPC. This was fortuitous for Iraq because it happened right before the oil price spike of 1973.

"Law 69" also set up a new state company, the Iraqi Company for Oil Operations, to take charge of the management of funds, assets and rights of IPC. On that same day Syria also nationalized the IPC's property in Syria.

It was enough to get on a Republican president's enemies list.

Background for War

Through 1973 and 1974 negotiations between the Kurds and Iraqi government went nowhere. There was failure to reach agreements on the duties and command structure of the peshmerga border guards. The Kurds refused to accept the Ba'thist determination of the borders of the Kurdish area, which excluded the oil-rich Kirkuk province. The census, promised the the March 1970 Manifesto, had still not been taken four years later.

Meanwhile, in the background, the CIA was maneuvering through their agent, Iran's Shah. Iran had their own agenda, and it involved an ancient border dispute. Kissinger managed to get $16 million in arms to the Kurds.

The Shatt-al-Arab waterway

To put it simply, the border disputes in the region date back to the Peace Treaty of 1639 (between the Persians and the Ottoman Empire), hundreds of years before Iraq even existed. The same disputes still exist today.

The British, before they were kicked out of Iraq, determined that the border was set at the low-water mark on the Iranian side, giving Iraq control of the shipping channel. Iran never accepted that, and this led to periodic armed clashes. One of those minor clashes was in 1974.

The Second Kurdish-Iraq War

"Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone. We feel, your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country's policy."

- Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani's message to Kissinger, 1975

"Promise them anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can't take a joke."

- Kissinger to a staff member regarding the Kurds, 1975

Mustafa Barzani
On March 11, 1974, the Ba'th regime proceeded to implement its own plan for self-rule, establishing a provincial council and an assembly in cooperation with Kurdish leaders who were opposed to Barzani's militant approach.

Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who had survived an assassination attempt just a few years before (if someone has more information about this, please let me know), had been preparing for war for several years. By spring 1974, nearly 50-60,000 peshmerga were enrolled in Barzani's ranks. After having fought the Iraqi government to a stalemate just a few years before, and being better equipt for battle than ever before, Barzani listened to his foreign advisors from Iran and America and drastically reorganized his force.

Earlier guerrilla tactics were abandoned and the peshmerga were re-assigned into completely conventional units. Believing international military support would continue throughout the conflict Barzani ordered these units to face the Iraqi enemy head-on. It was to be the biggest mistake he ever made.

Barzani launched his offensive only days after the Iraqi government decided to implement the agreement unilaterally. The Iraqi army attacked within weeks. Although the peshmerga may have downed over 100 Iraqi planes and destroyed over 150 tanks, they lacked the firepower face the Iraqi army head-on. The Kurds were blown to bits. The peshmerga retreated to the mountains, and from there they managed some limited victories.

The Betrayal
The shah and Saddam Hussein met in Algiers in March 1975, and they came to an agreement quickly. Saddam Hussein agreed that the thalweg would be the boundary in the Shatt al-'Arab, and the shah promised to stop his assistance to the Kurds. On the basis of the Algiers Agreement, the foreign ministers of Iraq and Iran met in Baghdad on June 13, 1975, and signed an elaborate treaty embodying the settlement of all disputes relating to frontiers between the two countries. This agreement virtually ended the Kurdish war.
The Iranians withdrew their artillery from Iraqi territory. Despite their pleas, the Kurdish leadership discovered the American objective was only to weaken Iraq and prevent an attack on Iran - not to assist in achieving Kurdish autonomy.

The Iraqi army attacked the very next day after the Algiers Agreement. Their bombings were indiscriminate. Over 200,000 Kurds fled the assualt to Iranian territory. By the end of 1975 the peshmerga, that feared fighting force of decades past, was nearly destroyed. Barzani fled Iraq and never returned. He traveled to America to get cancer treatment in 1976, and later died in exile. After fighting for Kurdish independence for 53 years, the great Kurdish warrior was gone.

Kurdish Power Vaccuum

Jalal Talabani
To prevent future Kurdish revolts, Saddam begins deporting tens of thousands of Kurds from Kurdistan to southern Iraq. The peshmerga are helpless to stop it. Saddam also encourages arabs to emigrate to the Kirkuk area (a situation that has now created a tinderbox in Iraq).

In this Kurdish political vaccuum a new leader stepped up. His name is Jalal Talabani. He also happens to be the current president of Iraq. But in July 1975 he was most noted for the creation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Yekiaiti Nishtimani Kurdistan).

The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq was founded by Barzani, and its leadership passed to his sons, Idris and Masud. Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan combined ex-KDP followers with left-wing organizations Iraqi Komala and the Socialist Movement of Kurdistan.

Despite the fact that the war had officially ended, the PUK continued to conduct rebellious activity. Minor clashes between the peshmerga of the KDP and the PUK occurred in July 1976, January 1977, and February 1977. Never before had peshmerga turned their weapons on fellow Kurds, especially those who had a common enemy in the Iraqi regime. These conflicts would continue unabated throughout the late 1970s and some of them would be very large and very violent.

The other side of the coin

While the terrible things the Baath party did in Iraq are well known, it is sometimes forgotten that they were patriots too. They honestly wanted Iraq to prosper...under their rule.

In 1969 the Baathists revised the 1958 Agrarian Reform Law, and in so doing speeded up the process of getting land into the hands of small farmers. They also created large irrigation projects during the late 70's.

In 1974 and 1975 the Iraqi government finished the nationalization of the oil industry and used the funds from the nationalization internally. This contrasts with the Saudis who simply recycle their oil revenue back to American banks.

Until 1991 literacy grew rapidly in Iraq, and the rights of women were protected to a far greater extent than anywhere else in the arab world.

Large investments were made in infrastructure throughout the 70's and the standard of living grew by leaps and bounds as the revenue from oil poured in. By 1979, Iraq ranked second in production of oil among Gulf states. Oil revenues provided 98 percent of foreign exchange and 90 percent of total revenues. What's more, the Baathists went much further to diversify their economy, making it less reliant on foreign manufactured imports than any other nation in the arab world.

Of course none of this prevented the Baathists from being tyrants. When the remnants of the ICP dared to criticize the Iraqi government, the leaders were quickly arrested. By 1979 the Iraqi Communist Party was no more, and all dissident voices had been silenced.

On July 16, 1979, the eve of the anniversary of the revolution of 1968, al-Bakr officially announced his resignation. He was immediately succeeded by Saddam Hussein.

Shortly before this change of power there was another even more eventfull change of power - the Iranian Revolution. This event increasingly dominated political events in the region, and in Iraq. This includes a Shiite riot in Karbala in 1979.

But this is another story.

Go to Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V,
Part VI, Part VII, Part IX and Part X of this feature.